Dinner Party: A Tragedy by Sarah Gilmartin review – family's subtle poison

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Brent Hofacker/Alamy

Kate slips away during a family dinner to throw a perfect baked alaska in the bin. “The freezer door was left open,” she lies to the gathered guests – her brothers Peter and Ray, and Ray’s wife, Liz. “The alaska’s ruined,” she declares, before packing them all off. The truth is that it’s not desserts that are collapsing in this observant debut about an Irish family who are confronted by tragedy in childhood and then forced to contend with the trauma of it in adulthood. It’s a sorrowful work, alert to the nuances of family life – the terrifying volatility and the stubborn loyalties – that make it such a crucible for drama.

Dinner Party opens in Dublin in 2018. Kate is in her mid-30s, single after an affair with a married man has fizzled out and still struggling with the eating disorder that hospitalised her as a teenager. The dinner she so painstakingly prepares for her family marks a sombre occasion – the 16th anniversary of the death of her twin sister, Elaine. The novel moves in time and place, before and after Elaine’s death, from Kate’s loneliness in contemporary Dublin to her troubled time as a university student and her childhood in County Carlow. Sarah Gilmartin wrangles these time frames and locations deftly enough, but she dangles the mystery of Elaine’s death so early and often in the novel that, at times, it feels like a visible device, clumsily prodding us to read on.

Gilmartin is at her best, though, in the set pieces that lay bare the dynamics of family life, from the bitterly rowing parents to the slow estrangement of siblings. At the opening dinner party, the Gleesons play a game where each chooses a single word to describe another member of the family. It’s all very amusing until Ray says: “Let’s do the word thing for Mammy.” Suddenly, the game loses all lightness. “Ladylike,” says Peter stiffly. “Delicate,” offers Liz diplomatically. “Maudlin,” suggests Ray. But it’s Kate’s offering – “Undiagnosed” – that hits the mark. Quite how undiagnosed Mammy is and what the implications of that might be emerge later when Gilmartin flashes back to a Christmas at the family home. An innocent game of charades goes wrong and Mammy turns, viciously, on Liz. It’s a horrifying scene and Gilmartin tells it compellingly, with a keen sense both of the high drama and the subtle poison of familial relationships.

© Photograph: Brent Hofacker/Alamy Family gathering … ‘The alaska’s ruined.’

Towards the end of the Christmas conflagration, Gilmartin observes how “Ray stared into space, into whatever vast unknowable horror this family meant for him.” Dinner Party is an attempt to plumb the depths of that horror. It’s in these quieter moments that Gilmartin captures something true about the private pain of our interior lives. The dysfunctional Irish family setting might invite a comparison with Anne Enright, but Dinner Party is more in the vein of a Tennessee Williams melodrama, with its staged set pieces and its sense of the theatricality of family life.

A novel about a monstrous mother and dysfunctional siblings may not seem to cover new literary ground, but Gilmartin is as interested in what keeps the family together as what tears it apart. In Dinner Party she explores the troubles that beleaguer a family, the alliances that form and the damaged psyches that develop. But she reaches, too, for what might save her characters. There are no guarantees, but we can try to make peace with the past, even with suffering. As Kate reflects: “They were all strange, troubled individuals but beside each other, they were very clearly a family. You could not call it anything else.”

Dinner Party: A Tragedy is published by One (£16.99). To support The Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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